[There are probably some spoilers in this review. Read at your own risk.]
As I think I have said, I am a HUGE SUCKER for book reviews and am easily persuaded to buy and devour the book, and then complain because I think I got duped, when actually I was a willing participant in that transaction. I could make a good list of books I didn’t like that I feel I was duped into reading by critics. Actually I think I will add a page like that.
That didn’t happen with this book, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, which I read about in the New Yorker. This book falls into proof for a really happy fact about this year: I am reading books this year that are not like other books, and I am really enjoying it. I like feeling that my horizons are expanding, and that the body of knowledge I am accessing is wider than ever before. There are books that I’ve never even heard of, which will impress me with their vividness and life and passion – and literary value.
I would note that the worst thing about this book is the cover. Who did that?
Anyway, the plot of the novel is actually fairly traditional: it is a coming-of-age, growing-up story of a childhood in a village near Naples. For as far removed as this village feels, you would think it is in another century, or in another planet, but it is in Europe and it is the 1950s. And yet, there is a permanent feeling to the story as well – particularly if you grew up in a village (or its American equivalent, as I did). There are the small-minded people, and the strange messages you get. The main character is favoured by the leaders of the town because she is smart and submissive, in a way that her best friend – arguably smarter – is not (because she is poorer and more feisty).
I also love the language about what it is like to love to learn, and to discover the world through books, having been from a small city with no mountains or perceived (in my world) link to the rest of the world. I like this part in particular:
But nothing that we had before our eyes every day, or that could be seen if we clambered up the hill, impressed us. Trained by our schoolbooks to speak with great skill about what we had never seen, we were excited by the invisible.
The thing I liked most, I think, was the book’s meticulous attention to the details about how perceptions change, and about how children become adults, and the small changes that we all make in that process. I think she is much better at that for women than men: the men seem to just get grumpy and irritable and then ultimately silent businessmen/mobsters/fathers, whereas the woman become complex people with a rich tapestry of emotions and motivations. But she gives voice to the difficult negotiations we make growing up, and the way some people see through the walls that close in their options in a small place and glimpse the rest of the world – if only temporarily.
This is the first volume of a trilogy, and I will definitely be reading the rest. At the point where this finished, she is just starting to feel that she can never fit in again with her old peer group, and feeling that odd sense of homelessness that comes with that. I remember that well.
It is hard for me to comment on the writing because it is in translation, but I enjoyed the flow of the language – whether that is a tribute to the translation or to the writer. I appreciated when she noted the difference between “proper Italian” and Sicilian dialect, but I wondered how it read in Italian – I assume there are so many nuances that I will not understand without reading this book in Italian (and which I will probably never do).
Overall, I’ll give this book a 4 star review, although it lacks the pretentious references to “big philosophical themes” that I usually look for in a 4+ star book. I think it gives a new perspective and a smart, restrained tone to violent and personal themes – fully worth the glowing review in the New Yorker… and this one.